Editor’s Notes: Meridor’s mission

By David Horovitz February 18, 2005

The Jewish Agency chief is desperately pressing to facilitate increased aliya after more than four years of terrorism here, amid Israel-apathy or downright opposition among many Diaspora Jews, and at a time of falling Agency funding and a strapped Israeli economy

It’s a biblical image. The way Sallai Meridor describes it, there are thousands upon thousands of Diaspora Jews who gather each year on the metaphorical ‘river bank,’ gaze longingly across to the promised land, and are just too frightened to brave the waters.

But these are not biblical times. And while his position as chairman of the Jewish Agency is highly prestigious, Meridor would be the first to confirm that it falls a considerable distance short of omnipotent. Not for him, then, the Divine option of miraculously dividing a watery obstruction to facilitate a return. If he is to bring the trepidatious multitudes to Zion, he has to work within more prosaic, human limitations.

Which is where things get difficult.

Meridor – who sat down with The Jerusalem Post for a lengthy conversation on Tuesday, ahead of next week’s meeting of the Agency’s board of governors – has plainly identified the core challenge facing his quasi-governmental behemoth: encouraging immigration in an era when coming to Israel is an option rather than an existential imperative for world Jewry.

Indeed, it is a challenge that is impossible to ignore or evade. Not when the latest annual immigration figures confirm that, at 22,164 new arrivals in the course of 2004, aliya has slipped back to the mid-Eighties lows that preceded the last great influx of ‘hardship’ arrivals from the disintegrating Soviet Union.

But how to meet it?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may not talk as often these days about the imminent transformative arrival of one million Western olim, but Meridor insists it is no pipe dream. It may take a fair while to achieve, that’s all.

‘He still thinks there could be a million olim from the West,’ says Meridor of the prime minister. ‘All of us agree there could be a million olim from the West. The question is over how long a period of time… I think that in the range of a generation, whether it’s 20 years or 30 years, we should strive to get to this number. And Ariel Sharon speaks about 15 years.’

In a variation on Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes as life’s two certainties, Meridor pinpoints education, employment and taxes as aliya’s three impediments. And ironically, or perhaps appropriately, he asserts that his Jewish Agency, hitherto one of the establishment’s more notorious bureaucracies, is now gearing up for a red-tape- busting assault on Israeli government bureaucracy to try to alleviate those obstacles.

Mild-mannered, droopy eyed and gently spoken, the Jerusalem-born Meridor, 49, makes for an unlikely would-be savior of the Jewish world. Never mind divine powers, it’s hard to visualize him as a modern-day Nahshon Ben-Aminadav, persuading a hesitant exiled Jewish nation to risk life and limb by plunging into the raging currents en route to the homeland.

But as an impeccably connected Likud ‘prince’ – scion of one former Knesset member, younger brother of another – who came to this job from stints as Agency treasurer, head of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, and adviser to Moshe Arens in both the Foreign and Defense ministries, he is certainly a credible player in the corridors of ministerial power, perhaps even a bureaucracy- buster.

And his parents did provide him with a thoroughly appropriate name for the aliya mission: It comes from the book of Nehemia (Ch. 11:8), where Sallai is listed as one of the Jews returning to Zion from First Temple exile in Babylon.

HIS IS an uphill battle. Meridor is desperately pressing to facilitate increased aliya after more than four years of terrorism here, amid Israel-apathy or downright opposition among many Diaspora Jews, and at a time of falling Agency funding and a strapped Israeli economy.

But he’s giving himself the best chance by focusing the Agency’s resources on the younger generation. Justifiably proud that 2004 saw a record 35,000 Diaspora youths visit Israel on ‘educational experiences,’ he’s working to raise the numbers participating in existing short-term programs here – currently battling to maintain budgets for the birthright israel project, for instance – and simultaneously pushing the development of a variety of year-long programs.

Those who visit Israel on such programs today, he rightly says, are either tomorrow’s likeliest immigrants or the likely leaders of a vibrant Diaspora future. If enough of them come in the next few years, he says, the calmness of his tone belying the scope of his ambition, ‘we will have saved the Jewish world for the future and we will have created the reservoir for aliya-of-choice for a generation or two.’

And his healthy disregard for his own or the Agency’s ego has seen him engage in a variety of aliya-raising partnerships that some of his predecessors might have self- defeatingly eschewed. Recognizing the success of the private Nefesh B’Nefesh initiative to encourage what have proved to be mainly modern-Orthodox American Jews to emigrate – in good part by smoothing the financial transition – Meridor has opted for cooperation over competition. A similar joint initiative is getting under way in France. He speaks of partnerships, too, in creating the expanded range of semester and full-year educational programs that he hopes, five years from now, will be attracting an annual 20,000 young Diaspora Jews.

‘It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at new initiatives as competition,’ he says. ‘To me, the more [initiatives such as] Nefesh B’Nefesh there are, the better it is for aliya, for the Jewish Agency. Our bottom line is how many immigrants come to Israel. We try to achieve that in every way that is reasonable and decent with every group we work with.’

GIVEN THE prominence of his position, the consequent time pressures and the presumption that he is asked many of the same key questions over and over, Meridor makes for an unusually rewarding interviewee. He rarely resorts to slogans, beyond an understandable reliance on phrases such as ‘the need to build for the future.’ And at several points in our conversation, I had the unfamiliar sensation that a query was actually being seriously evaluated and considered before the response began.

It added up to a more protracted process. The Post’s Hilary Leila Krieger and I were with him for close to an hour and a half, to the mounting impatience of his secretarial staff.

But Meridor talked at length, and with good sense, about the need to develop a wide range of educational opportunities for potential olim, and find the most efficient means to help them clear the language barrier.

He explained the imperative to streamline or abolish some of the laborious procedures by which would-be professional olim are required to requalify in order to continue their careers in Israel. Take potential immigrant dentists, he said (and I resisted the impulse to interrupt with a caustic witticism born of too many hours beneath the drill). ‘They don’t have any other option, even if they’ve been working for 20 years in New York or Paris, but to come and start afresh and take the medical school exams for dentists, which no peer with 20 years of experience would be able to pass in terms of what he remembers.’

Just a few months ago, he said, he heard of a group of hundreds of dentists in France, who are ‘sitting on their bags,’ waiting to immigrate, but are being deterred by concerns over how long it might take for them to get to practice here.

And he protested the short-sighted injustices of the Israeli tax regimen which sees people over 55, ‘who have already earned assets outside of Israel,’ justifiably complaining ‘that taxes in Israel are making it nearly impossible for them to move to Israel. And people who planned to move to Israel when they retire now face a situation where what they’re going to be left with is significantly less than what they were banking on.’

Somewhat dispiritingly, it must be added, he frequently sounded distinctly bureaucratic, talking of the committees that had just been set up, or had yet to be set up, to joust with the various government ministries in these areas. On misguidedly ‘protective’ hurdles for immigrant professionals, for instance, he spoke generally about ‘going to work with the government… with members of Knesset, to change the regulations.’ And on taxes, he talked of setting up ‘a committee of tax experts, in Israel and abroad, that will work with us on the issue’ and his hope that interaction with the Finance Ministry, which ‘has not begun yet,’ would be productive.

He was more understandably general in championing a pluralistic Israel, fully accessible to all streams of Judaism.

‘The more Jewish and democratic, and the more all- inclusive Jewishly, the more pluralistic Israel can be, it will be more relevant – yes, as a magnet for aliya, but at the same time as a source of pride for Jews living in the Diaspora.’

And he was categorical on disengagement. Evidently reconciled to the possibility of alienating parts of the local and Diaspora world, he restated his unstinting support for Sharon’s central policy, while emphasizing that this was his own personal stance, and detailed the Agency’s role in making its ‘great experience in settling Israelis’ available to the government as it plans for the relocation of Gaza’s Jews.

‘I’m for disengagement,’ Meridor said, ‘for the reason that we are ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state… We need to make a very painful decision, of compromising on some of the Land of Israel, to ensure that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state for future generations.’

There was, he allowed, a risk of increased terrorism. And there would be ‘major pain on the national and individual level.’ But were disengagement to be passed up, he said, Israel would be left with ‘almost a certainty of a very dangerous future. We have to make a strategic choice of redeploying our Zionist forces within boundaries that are demographically defensible.’ This from a man who was world head of the Likud’s Betar youth movement and who lives in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim.

If disengagement proves the panacea its more enthusiastic advocates predict, the chances for success of the million-olim mission of Meridor’s Agency would doubtless be greatly increased. An Israel free of terror, gradually normalizing relations with the neighbors, its economy rebounding and its image soaring, would undoubtedly constitute a far more attractive destination for the procrastinating Diaspora multitudes.

And should so idyllic a transformation fail to ensue? It would be hard, then, to imagine that even all the improved educational opportunities, streamlined employment procedures and reduced tax burdens to which Meridor aspires would be sufficient to persuade those hesitant thousands, gathered on that metaphorical river bank, to jump in.

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